In Our Strange Gardens – The 52nd Book

December 30th, 2009 - written by

I’m really tired but also a little anxious and quite a bit relieved. Reggie and Bob weren’t doing it for me either. A commenter posited that it was so hard to find a book because #52 was supposed to mean something more, something to speak for the previous 51 books, to represent. And yes, I agree. I couldn’t choose a book that seemed appropriate for the final book.

I was avoiding reading In Our Strange Gardens because of it’s length. It’s only 80 pages when translated from French. How could I end the resolution with an 80 page book? But all day today I was telling myself that the resolution was over, that 51 had to be where it ended. I even got into bed telling myself it was over, you can relax now, it’s done and 51 is just fine. I hadn’t completed a book in almost a month.

Then I looked over at the book that my sister let me borrow and I just started reading. She really beamed up when she loaned it to me, and I still hear those words that I so often say to other people, “I can’t tell you why I loved it, I just did”. I guess that stuck with me.

So, resigned to failure I started reading the book and a few hours later I had it finished, and yes, it is a wonderful book. So simple and true, and much more full of life than other books with a higher page count with more to say that is quickly forgotten. But not here, not with these characters and these sacrifices and how the story is told, with the end at the beginning, the beginning in the middle, and the end back where you started the whole thing. And through this whole circuitous read you are totally engaged, and time fades away, and before I knew it, I had my 52 books.

Book Thoughts

I Fail To See The Problem

May 26th, 2012 - written by

I don’t have a problem. That’s the first thing that I want to make clear. The problem that I’m recognizing but at the same time adamantly denying is that I have a problem completing books. It’s a fact that if you look at my reading history on Goodreads, a place that I unabashedly record my quote/unquote “problem” (I know what I just did was redundant), you will see that I am “Currently Reading” 33 books. The most recent addition to this category is David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, which I entered into the system that is Goodreads this evening. The oldest book in that list is “A People’s History of The United States” that I started reading on January 12, 2009. For those unfamiliar with my history, which is ALL of you, that is a lifetime ago. Regardless, it is true that I’m still reading that book. And 32 others.

I really am. Some might say that I have a mood disorder. And those “some” might perhaps be my “doctors”.  But still they are merely opinions. It is true that my attention often goes to the highest bidder, and the bidders change daily and the going rate for my attention differs not only in whatever is analogous to a monetary value, but also by subject matter, or whatever is appealing-at-the-moment.  So right now, according to my bookshelf and the seemingly random placement of the bookmarks in each of those books, I think that instead of my interests growing and fading like the sun between sunrise and sunset, my interests are expanding and I’m currently basking in the perpetual sunlight of 33 works of creative thought in subjects ranging from the spiritual, historical, scientific, fictional, and instructional. Products of the finest minds in their respective fields, and each night I get to choose.

So what’s the problem? There is none, and I’ll prove it to you if you buy me dinner, or if you want the long, more entertaining version, a book. During this time I’ve racked up this huge list of books that haven’t been finished, a situation that many who are on the outside would consider a microcosm of my life in general.  But those people would fail to recognize, and perhaps join the ranks of the growing misinformed, that during the time of 33 uncompleted books that I purchased and began reading but haven’t finished as of today, that there was something else happening. That “something” was perhaps less noticeable, and less obvious. And while even more of these people might see that list of 33 books that I’ve started as evidence of someone with a distracted or uncommitted  mind, or a person that quickly acquires and loses interests quicker than most, they would overlook the 117 books that were started and completed in that same timespan.  117 books that held my interest, that kept me captivated, and several of those that I was saddened by the end, by the turn of the last page and that the book couldn’t go on forever. Everything comes to an end, as many things have, but my interests won’t, my projects won’t, and my list of books that I’m currently reading, much like the parts of my life that I’ve failed, will pale in comparison to the list of books I’ve completed, and the list of things in my life in which I’ve found success.

2012, Book Thoughts, Brian Utley

Jeffrey Archer And My Inability To Properly Summarize

April 20th, 2012 - written by

I haven’t been buying a lot of “actual” books lately. With the availability of digital books, and with the ability to have them instantly “in your possession” when the mood strikes you, buying a physical book has become less common. I certainly don’t buy books at bookstores, hahahahahaha!!  Who does that anymore? It’s like I said almost two years ago on Twitter:

So between books, I found myself at Costco, browsing the books. Costco actually does a good job at picking its book inventory, they always have 5-7 books that are of interest to me. I was with Jenny, who as I have mentioned before helps me take things less seriously, helps me enjoy life, and somehow steers me in a direction where I’m bound to bump into something interesting. I’ll admit, I judge a book by its cover quite often and this book caught my attention. A boat, a silhouette, and the New York skyline of long ago. And the title, “Only Time Will Tell”. I was in a relaxed mood, and I felt like it was time to dive into A STORY. A real story, rich with characters and settings and page-turning narratives. After a quick check of the important aspects of the book, which in my opinion are:

1. Who the author is.
2. The opening paragraph.
3. A random paragraph from the middle of the book.
4. The length of the book, usually to match the estimated time of expected interest.
5. Context of the story.
6. What people say about the book.

The book passed in all areas except number 6. Curiously, not a single quote was about the book itself, but about the author, Jeffrey Archer, who I hadn’t read before but was familiar with. Now, when all the accolades within the book make no mention of the book, that is usually a sign that the book underachieved and that the publishing company hopes to sell copies based on the merit of the author, not on the merit of the story. Despite this glaringly obvious sign that such was the case, I purchased the book. Although I put it down twice before I reached the checkout but finally made the decision after Jenny told me the actualy price was much lower than what the back of the book said. So, for roughly $5 I bought an actual, physical, real-life book, with paper and a spine and everything. I didn’t know at the time what I had gotten myself into.

The book was marvelous, and reminded me at times of Tobias Wolff’s “Old School”, but on a much grander scale. MUCH grander scale. As it turns out, I had unwittingly picked out a book that would was the first of a five-book story that would span roughly one hundred years. It covers the life of Harry Clifton, born into a tricky situation that quickly becomes uncommingly and mesmirizingly more tricky with each turn of the page.

The more I read, the more I was presented with great writing, crisp and clear without wasted sentences or tangential sections. Everything is so neatly packaged that turning the page became an almost subconscious act, keeping pace with the characters and matching the pace of the story and the pace of the writing as if it all came out of Archer at once.  But then it was never too fast, never too slow, everything being presented in perfect order, and even the waiting and anticipation so thoughtfully spaced as to catch the reader not just off guard, but off guard at the perfect time.  There’s a difference, trust me.

I’ve never been good at talking about stories. Which is why I hardly ever do, despite this being a blog about literature. Even with movies, I can’t tell somebody what a movie was about, but I sure can go on and on about what the movie meant to me, what feelings were conveyed, and oh yea, it had something to do with a spaceship having trouble in space, or about a guy whose Dad died and he meets this girl. Yea, that’s the story and the story had depth and all that and most people, when asked “What was the movie about”, can start at the start and finish at the end, and do a great job of summarizing what the movie was about. I’m terrible at that.

I watch movies and I read books similar to how I listen to conversations. And this is something of a pet peeve of Jenny’s.  I listen, but I listen to find the meaning. Contrary to what she sometimes thinks, I understand what she says, and I’m listening to what she’s saying, but what I’m really looking for is what she means. Deep down I’m trying to discover why she’s telling me the story, what is the motivation behind it, and what response she is looking for. Not that she isn’t a great communicator, she is, and not that I always try to placate, because I don’t. Great communication is something that we’ve had from day one. But every person has their own way of saying what they mean, few people come right out and say it, at least the important things, in a way that is without metaphor, or hidden within context that masks the core message. And that paragraph, readers, is a giant tangent. Bottom line is I’m horrible at summarizing stories, but I can analyze the motivation of the person telling it all night long. Jenny might say, “I’m not so sure about living in Pleasant Grove.” Simple enough statement, right? But what were the thoughts behind it? Did something specific happen to make her think that? Is she wanting to improve what she has here? Is she wanting to move altogether? Is this a loose reference to marriage, and the idea of relocation? Is she a spy and has suddenly been discovered? Witness protection program? Knowledge of an impending flood? Can she see the future and had a vision of a string of burglaries? I mean really, her statement could MEAN ANYTHING!

(Catching breath) So, the author, Jeffrey Archer, is pretty incredible. I’m surprised I haven’t read anything of his before. Check out his Wiki page. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s an amazing storyteller.

Lucky for me that once I was far enough into the book I happened upon unexpected news, that this was the first installment of a five-part series. The next book is being published right now and available next month. I can’t wait to find out how the heck Harry Clifton, now an adult, heading into WWII, comes to America and due to unforeseen and miraculous events, choses to take on the name of a dead man, and unselfishly allows reports of his death to spread across the Atlantic to England and collection of people that have become extremely familiar to the reader, with huge implications of his death affecting them all in very different ways.

It’s a great book, a fantastic story, and it has just begun. Highly recommended to all. I’d tell you more about it, but I’m not so good at that.



2012, Book Thoughts, Brian Utley, Jeffrey Archer, Only Time Will Tell , , , ,

The History of The Universe – Best Told Through Fiction?

March 29th, 2012 - written by

Well it would have to be.  Right?  There are plenty of stories about the history of life, history of civilizations, history of the earth.  Some more accurate than others…  But the story of the creation of The Universe would need to be told by someone who was there for it.  And who could be there before they themselves were created? (see: Paradox)
Few people would be talented enough or have the necessary understanding of the universe and its laws to attempt that story.  But one of them is Alan Lightman, physicist and best-selling novelist.  Now a professor at MIT where he teaches physics, his first love, and writing, his second.  Among my favorite authors, Lightman can entwine whimsical physics and mind-broadening narratives like no other writer today.

There are many things that have brought me a sense of awe.  Watching my first child being born, standing in front of Michelangelo’s David, watching the sun rise on Lake Como from a train window, the first time I saw a Major League Baseball field, surfing dawn patrol with the sea otters and dolphins off Capitola, reading Einstein’s Dreams….  More about Einstein’s Dreams later.  This is about Mr g. the guy (or The Guy) who was there before it all.  And this is about Lightman, who is an author that enables awe and who I’ll describe like this:

Take Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.  Then put it away.  Then buy the Cliffs Notes. Because honestly, if you understood it, or say you did, I’d nod my head and later that evening chuckle a little to myself at your expense as I turn out the light.  Because you can’t…. so don’t.  So, take the abridged version of that, add a tablespoon of Horton Hears A Who, two cups of Steinbeck, three ounces of that crazy-ass science teacher from jr. high, and if you have the means, Richard Feynman as a 13 y/o.  Throw it all together and you’d have Lightman’s A Sense of The Mysterious.  An approachable, understandable, and engaging collection of essays about physics (the ubiquitous and oft misunderstood quantum version as well) and the discoveries of everything awesome.  If The Elegant Universe is a barefoot trek with no food through the Sahara, A Sense of The Mysterious is a limosine ride to a hillside ristorante in Tuscany.

So if quantum physics is what you’re after, and you’re smart enough to say you didn’t understand The Elegant Universe, start with A Sense of The Mysterious.  Once your done, see it all in action.  Theories are great, but that’s all they are.  Einstein’s Dreams is a book that puts theories of time and space into action, into stories that you and I can wrap our heads around.  Great books are often hailed as “page-turners”.  Not Einstein’s Dreams.  Einstein’s Dreams is great because the last thing you want to do is get to the last page.  You don’t want to turn the page, you want to reread each page over and over.  You want to read a page and put the book down, look up at the ceiling with a euphoric smile and ask your brain to dissect what you have just read by asking the daydream-inducing question of “what if?”  What if there was a center of time, a place you could go where time stopped, time moving slower the closer you get and with that in mind would you ever get there?  What if time was circular with no end and no beginning with no knowledge of your repeating existence?  What if time could be captured and relived at will, and on and on, each story answering a sliver of “what if” while at the same time creating the curiousity in you to create your own “what if’s” with your imagination.  When someone asks you if you liked the book, imagine answering with a smile fit for a knowing shaaman and the response, “I couldn’t stop putting it down”.

“Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but is noble to live life and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.”
― Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

a selection of quotes from Einstein’s Dreams here.

With that in mind, I discovered Lightman had slipped one past me.  A new book.  A history of the universe, a novel.  Written by mr. g. himself, who existed before time and space, who existed only in the void.  And one day he was bored.  So he created a universe.  Then another and another.  Then he grew more curious and created more things, he created laws.  Then they failed and he created more universes and more laws until he got them right.  Or so he thought.

The stories we have now of The Universe suddenly became silly and minimalist.  Most stories of the Universe and our place in it start with the creation of the Universe, then the creation of Earth, then life, then the inevitable destruction of Earth and then it stops.  In some cases it continues and The Universe just… peeters out.  Being a great storyteller, Lightman has a grander scope.  Being a great theoretical physicist, he does it with reality-checking wonder and awe.  His version of The Universe doesn’t feature Earth or mankind as the subject with the leading role.  I wouldn’t even say Earth, or our existence, would warrant a cameo label.  He presents perspective.

There is something happening that is much bigger than we’re informed of.  Something much more profound and awe-inspiring than we’re capable of comprehending.  We’ve had Carl Sagan and we still have Hubble.  We have the Bible and we’ve had Einstein.  We have quantum physics with worm holes and Entanglement and string theory and multiple dimensions where versions of us are making an infinite number of different decisions with different outcomes.  But we also have sunrises and marble statues and crying babies.  And these all have their special place in The Cosmos.  And somehow, with one eye on infinity and another on now, Lightman is able to give our story here on earth and here in our homes meaning and depth and profundity by unveiling to us how fleeting our time is here.  But that’s not the book’s purpose, it’s merely a byproduct.  How someone could make me feel so large and important by showing me just how small and insignificant I am is beyond me.  But Lightman does it.  And he does it with wit and humor and comprehensible theoretical physics and he did it by putting me in my place, showing me where I am, where I came from, and inevitably where I’ll go.  And that story, when the final word is written about us all, will also be awe-inspring.

What has been your most awe-inspiring moment?

2012, Book Thoughts, Brian Utley

the imperfectionists, again.

January 13th, 2012 - written by

Christmas morning. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something along the lines of “it looked like something you’d be interested in”. A present from Jenny. The book was VERY interesting, one of the most engaging books I’ve read in a long time, with a cast of authentic and relatable characters. While reading a book that focuses on how little people really know about each other, I reflected, in turn, on how well Jenny did know me, with the book as solid proof right there in front of my face. Jenny and I are different in many ways, but we know each other. She knows enough to read a few words on a book cover and know it’s right up my alley. I’m glad I have that in my life.

I was primarily impressed by the imagination of the author, writing from the perspective of so many different people, and doing it so aptly. It never seemed like it was a single author writing about several different characters, using only his limited knowledge of life gained from his own experience. It ALWAYS seemed like a very personal 1st person narrative. Each writer brutally honest, sincere, and completely revealed, with all their faults and weaknesses. To quote NYT: “[the book] is so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off. I still haven’t answered that question, nor do I know how someone so young … could have acquired such a precocious grasp of human foibles. The novel is alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching, and it’s assembled like a Rubik’s Cube.”

The views were refreshing. We all struggle. We all have fears and pain and fight the feeling of loneliness. These characters buoyed me not by telling me the loneliness was going away, or that there is always a resolution, they buoyed me because in a lot of ways we are all the same, we all have our frailties, and because of this, we’re not alone. We all fight the good fight, and even though the book was filled with failure and ineptitude, could there be any other single unchangeable thing that we all have in common and ties us all together than our lack of perfection?

I get trapped in the idea of judging myself in many areas based on the relative “distance” I am from someone else in those areas. For instance, if I wanted to be an accomplished author, I picked the wrong book to read because the author is a couple years younger than me and has written a bestseller. Some of the characters were the same, measuring their success on how successful those around them are, or have been. The reader’s advantage is being able to see all the characters from above and see that when comparing people, success, happiness, there is no usable metric. I can’t help but feel that if someone tried to use a metric, deep down inside it would be skewed to side of “I’m not doing enough”. There’s the young, rich publisher who is as alone and as empty as Scrooge himself, and then there’s the old, destitute, and redundant writer who finds safety in a charitable and unconditionally loving son. And who’s better off? Money, family, career, love, accomplishments….In the algorithm of life and happiness, which elements are worth more than others?

2012, Book Thoughts ,

Einstein For Book 52

December 6th, 2009 - written by

So it took me longer than usual to finish Ghost. It wasn’t that it wasn’t enjoyable, because it was. It was everything that I thought it would be. I just got busy, as people do. While I was in the middle I did pick up a book about baseball. Sometimes that just happens. I read a collection of essays by the late Yale President and Baseball Commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti called A Great and Glorious Game. I started that book on 11/21 and finished it on 11/24. I started Ghost on 11/16 and finished on 12/02. It wasn’t until today, 4 days later, that I decided on what book to finish the year with.

I’m gonna challenge myself a bit and end strong. Right now I’m not really feeling the joy of reading as much as I usually do. Reading is tough work sometimes and lately other things have just taken priority over it. So I’m ending the year with the largest book I’ve read this year, a biography of Einstein. Hopefully by undertaking this large of a book I’ll get the drive back. I’ve been wanting to read an Einstein biography for a long time and I’ve heard great things about this particular one. And this biography is relatively new.

So, 704 pages in 25 days. Only two books this year, NurtureShock and The Fountainhead, have taken me longer than 20 days. The Fountainhead took the longest to read at exactly…25 days. For the first 51 books it took me, on average, 6.8 days per book. Wish me luck, I’ll need it for this one.

Book Thoughts